Congress goes nowhere fast Frustrated, lame ducks wade through unfinished business as year nears end

Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- For politicians who are retiring or lost re-election, lame-duck sessions of Congress can be an empty experience. They are not much of a winner, either, for many of those sticking around.

Like a dreaded family reunion, lame-duck sessions are a coming together when you are not in the mood, and most likely with people you just do not want to see.

''It's frustrating for everybody,'' says Leon Panetta, who remembers those awkward interims during his 16 years in Congress before serving as budget director and chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

''Everybody's been through a rough campaign. They're tired, they want to get away from Washington for a while and they have to be dragged back there to have to do a lot of the things they don't want to do.''

Whether this group from the 107th Congress came back kicking and screaming, or is bright-eyed and bushy tailed -- and there are elements of both in this session -- they have been rallying one more time to tidy up some unfinished business.

In the current session, some big things are getting done. The House approved creation of a Homeland Security Department -- the largest restructuring of government in half a century -- after overcoming a persistent but relatively narrow dispute over labor rights of the agency's employees. The Senate is plugging away on that and more this week.

In the House, most members have scattered again but the session is technically alive, waiting if necessary to iron out minor details on homeland security after Senate action. A small group of remaining House members, standing in for the rest, could rubber stamp the bill so it can go to President Bush.

This session has only managed to pass a few of the 13 spending bills necessary to pay for federal programs in the budget year that began Oct. 1. Members adopted a stopgap measure that keeps everything going until the next Congress can sort it all out.

This lame duck -- a term that comes from an 18th century British expression for bankrupt businessmen -- is the 14th since 1940. The sessions occur after the election of a new Congress but before the new members are sworn in come early January.

In the interim, Congress is made up of departing members who have their minds on life after politics, returning members waiting for the next session to get big things done and members who thrive no matter what.

Some say the sessions are a lot about getting nowhere fast. Or, as former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., puts it, a time when ''We are all aware that the problems didn't get any easier and the solvers didn't get any smarter and so you end in a kind of state of confusion and disappointment.''

That is not to say all lame-duck sessions have been lame.

President Clinton was impeached in 1998 during a one-day lame duck for ''high crimes and misdemeanors'' arising from his affair with a White House intern. In 1994, a historic world trade agreement passed. And, in 1954, Senate hearings were held to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his conduct of anti-communist hearings.

The Senate used one of the first votes of this lame-duck session to accept a pay raise for the fourth consecutive year. House Democrats elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as their leader -- the first woman to lead a political party in Congress.

Even long lame-duck sessions may not amount to much. In a six-week session in 1970, congressional leaders acted on major legislation, including electoral reform and an equal rights constitutional amendment for women. President Nixon vetoed those big bills and more.

But in 1980, during President Jimmy Carter's final months, the government approved the Superfund law to clean up toxic waste dumps.

Frenzel says there always is the chance of something unpredictable happening in this period.

''You may have thought a bill was dead and suddenly it rises from the grave,'' he said. ''People are less attentive, attendance is less good on the floor during a lame-duck session.''

Political scientist Tim Nokken, who has studied lame-duck voting patterns, says departing members have less at stake than members who will be facing voters again, and that can be reflected in modest changes in the way they vote, or whether they do.

In the current session, for example, Democratic Rep. Gary Condit of California, who lost a party primary because of his relationship with an intern whose killer is still being sought, did not come back to vote.

The next Senate majority leader, Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi, and the outgoing one, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, agree lame-duck sessions are nothing special.

Lott said he just does not like them. After some postelection confusion, Daschle ended up retaining his title as majority leader for now, but he hardly considered that a big prize. ''It really doesn't matter much,'' he said.

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